Tommy Tuberville had a decision to make. So did the other Republican senators huddling with him in the storage closet.
It was Jan. 6, right-wing rioters were ransacking the U.S. Capitol, but these lawmakers were already in a secured part of the complex and had been milling about a hearing room with a larger group of senators. They weren’t hiding from the mob. They were hiding from their colleagues.
The group, led by Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), had planned to object to the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential campaign — a gesture of solidarity with President Donald Trump, who had spent months trying to overturn his loss. The siege of the Capitol by Trump’s supporters, however, had some lawmakers thinking that formally objecting to Biden’s victory might be a bad look.
So into the closet they went, for privacy’s sake — around a dozen Republicans, including the Alabama newbie known as “Coach.”
“You’ve got 25 seconds to call a play,” Tuberville said recently, thinking back on the scene. “You can’t call a bunch of timeouts.”
It was the former college football coach’s first full day in the Senate, and already he was being called off the sidelines. Earlier on Jan. 6, Trump had wanted to talk to Tuberville but called Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) by mistake; Lee had handed Tuberville a cellphone in the Senate chamber. Tuberville said he didn’t have time to find out exactly what Trump wanted. Vice President Mike Pence had been whisked to a secure location, and Tuberville and his colleagues had to get moving, too. “I know we’ve got problems,” Tuberville recalled the president saying before the call ended. “Protect yourself.”
Inside the storage closet, a bunker within a bunker, surrounded by stacked furniture, the senators weighed whether the mob’s demonstration of loyalty to Trump that day might affect their own.
“There were twelve of us gathered to talk about what happens now, where do things go from here,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.).
The mood was “very heavy,” remembered Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.).
“I do remember saying we have to pull the country together,” said Lankford, “We are so exceptionally divided that it’s spilling into the building.”
“I didn’t really listen to them,” Tuberville said about the closet colloquy.
He does remember a few details. “One thing that was brought up was that people were hurt,” he recalled in one of several interviews with The Washington Post. Plus, Biden was going to end up president, whether they objected or not. “Do we want to continue this,” Tuberville remembered his colleagues mulling, “if there’s not going to be a result we are looking for anyway?”
Some Republican senators changed their minds after the closet huddle, but Tuberville’s vote was not in question. Coach stuck with the play and formally objected to certifying the electoral college votes in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
Nevermind that neither election administrators nor the Justice Department had found evidence of voter fraud at a meaningful scale. Or the subsequent warnings from democracy experts such as Rick Hasen, co-director of the University of California at Irvine’s Fair Elections and Free Speech Center, who told The Post that Tuberville and his fellow defectors had ratified the violent actions of the insurrectionists, and Ian Bassin, executive director of the nonprofit Protect Democracy, who said that they had made it more likely that the next attempt to overthrow an election will succeed.
And nevermind any consideration Tuberville might have owed to his new colleagues. “I see those 13 enablers, along with the president, as trying to destroy this country,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told The Post in February, a few weeks after the attack.
“I wasn’t voting for me, I was voting for the people of Alabama,” Tuberville recently told The Post. “President Trump has an 80-percent approval there. I told them, ‘I’m going to vote how you want me to vote.’”